Canadian Craze Carrying NBA Finals Viewership

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Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Canada’s emerging hoops fever has translated into ratings success in the country for the NBA, helping to offset the U.S. viewership drop during the 2019 NBA Finals.

Heading into the finals, U.S. viewership of the 2019 NBA playoffs was down 14% year-over-year, stoking fears that ratings would further crater with the first-ever “global final.” But even as U.S. ratings have dropped perhaps as expected, the overwhelming excitement across Canada for the Toronto Raptors has been a boon for the league.

Over the first three games of the 2019 NBA Finals, the aggregate audience in the U.S. and Canada averaged 17.7 million viewers, a split of 13.4 million viewers in the U.S. and 4.3 million viewers in Canada.

While that is down roughly 6.8% from 2018, when the aggregate audience over the first three games for the 2018 finals was 18.9 million, the Canadian portion of that audience is up more than five fold. In 2018, just an average of 831,936 Canadian viewers tuned in for the first three games of the series between the Golden State Warriors versus LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, while 18.1 million viewers in U.S. did.

The Raptors’ march through the NBA Playoffs has shattered one Canadian TV record after another.

Game 2 of the NBA Finals was the most-watched NBA game ever in Canada, averaging 4.3 million viewers across the TSN, CTV2 and RDS channels. That broke the record set by Game 1, which averaged 3.3 million viewers on Sportsnet. Before this year’s NBA Playoffs, no basketball game ever averaged more than 3 million viewers in Canada.

Through Game 3, nearly 40% of the Canadian population had watched all or part of the Finals.

Outdoor viewings of Raptors games in Toronto’s “Jurassic Park”  – otherwise known as Maple Leaf Square, situated just outside of Scotiabank Arena – are all the rage. Smaller ”Jurassic Park” viewing parties are popping up across the country in cities like Ottawa.

“We are just ecstatic that one in three Canadians are watching our broadcasts,” says Dan MacKenzie, NBA Canada managing director.

Two TV networks, TSN and Sportsnet, split the Raptors’ regular season/playoff telecasts. This has been the Raptors’ most-watched season ever, according to Sportsnet President Bart Yabsley. The team’s regular season TV audience has grown fourfold since the 2010-2011 season.

“We have seen record breaking ratings throughout this playoff run, and growth across all of our Sportsnet platforms as fans continually look to Sportsnet for their Raptors coverage,” Yabsley says.

There’s some obvious reasons why the Raptors are the hottest show on TV, said Seerat Sohi, a Toronto-based NBA reporter for Yahoo Sports who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta.

None of the NHL’s seven Canadian franchises reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ Conference Finals this spring. Only three made the playoffs at all — and none got past the first round. So there’s no beloved NHL club like Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens vying for attention. The Raptors are it.

READ MORE: Heading into NBA Finals, ESPN Doubles Down on Stephen A. Smith

“People are looking for something to watch,” says Sohi. “At the same time, it’s really exciting…The Raptors have really made a push over the last decade or so to increase their fan base.”

Among the factors driving the NBA’s Canadian growth:

— All Raptors games televised nationally: The NBA’s TV footprint in Canada is different from the U.S.

Outside of select national game telecasts on ESPN/ABC and TNT, the NBA’s 29 U.S. clubs are mostly shown regionally on their local sports channel.

“That’s probably the key differentiator with the U.S., where only a portion of games are broadcast nationally. The Raptors are Canada’s only team,” says MacKenzie.

— Canadian players starring in NBA: In an increasingly global league, Canada produces more players than just about any country outside the U.S. That trend is expected to continue at the NBA Draft on June 20, where up to a dozen Canadians could be tapped by NBA clubs.

All NBA games in Canada are televised nationally. Once Canadian players enter the league, their games air countrywide. Their friends and neighbors become NBA fans — if they’re not already.

“Because of our broadcast footprint, no matter where the athlete is from, whether he’s from Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, wherever, their games get broadcast nationally,” MacKenzie says. “So you can follow your favorite player. That’s something unique to this country. And something that helps build fan interest.”

— Consistent TV announcers: There’s a consistency to Raptors telecasts that makes fans feel like they’re tuning in to watch the game with old friends.

Play-by-play announcer Matt Devlins calls all Raptors games for both TSN and Sportsnet. He works with longtime game analysts Jack Armstrong and Leo Rautins.

These announcers go back to the beginning with the franchise. MacKenzie says the TV trio has been “instrumental” in the NBA’s Canadian growth.

“I don’t want to say they’ve taught the game to Canadians,  because basketball was founded by a Canadian, basketball is in the school system here and Canadian fans are very savvy about the game. But in terms of the intricacies of the game, and the way the game is officiated, and the level of the competition, they’ve been great ambassadors of the game up here.”

READ MORE: Viewership for NBA Playoffs Down 14% Heading Into Finals

— National marketing by the Raptors: The Toronto-based Raptors have made it a point to target fans outside of Ontario, notes Sohi.

The Raptors hold their training camps in West Coast cities like Victoria. They play preseason games across the country in cities like Montreal, Quebec and Vancouver, British Columbia. The goal: build up their fan base outside of Toronto, which now ranks as one of North America’s largest markets with nearly six million people.

The strategy has worked. A “national fervor” has developed around the Raptors, according to Sohi. Especially since they’re playing the powerful Warriors, who have won three of the last four NBA championships.

If the Raptors win Canada’s first Larry O’Brien Championship trophy — and Leonard chooses to stay in Toronto — the franchise will earn decades of fan loyalty, she predicts.

“A moment like this? This is how you make fans. This is why Chicago Bulls games are still packed twenty years after Michael Jordan retired,” Sohi says. “When you have a player like Kawhi Leonard, they make you believe things you wouldn’t believe. That’s what makes people fall in love with the game.”